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The Lasting Impact of COVID-19 on Kids’ Mental Health—and What Parents Can Do to Help

Worried about how your kid is weathering the pandemic? Here's what you need to know.

This story was produced in partnership with Stanford Children’s Health.

The COVID-19 pandemic and the cascading disruptions it has caused have been particularly difficult on parents. That’s because they’ve had to consider not just their own safety but that of their children as well. Now, as widespread vaccinations bring things back to something more closely resembling normal, parents are wondering what the lasting impact of the pandemic on their kids’ mental health will be.

We spoke with Dr. Jody Ullom, a pediatrician at Stanford Children’s Health Town and Country Pediatrics, to better understand how the experience of living through a pandemic is affecting kids, how parents can spot potential issues, and what they can do to make things better.

Look for warning signs.

“We were already seeing skyrocketing levels of anxiety and depression prior to the pandemic, and this has put gasoline on it,” Dr. Ullom says. “Fortunately, I think parents are pretty aware when their kids are not doing well.”

The most obvious thing to be on the lookout for is a personality shift. If a normally talkative kid becomes quiet, that’s a red flag. Similarly, changes in how they want to spend their time can be a sign of something deeper. If your kid loved soccer pre-pandemic but now doesn’t ever want to kick the ball around, it could be more than a sign of shifting interests. It could be a sign that it’s much more difficult for them to feel happy.

And if you’re hesitant to check in with your kids, don’t be.

“The only wrong way to do it is not to do it,” Dr. Ullom says.

Enlist professional help.

Your first instinct might be to go to a child psychologist or other mental health specialist, but in most cases, a visit to your kid’s regular doctor is a good first step, particularly given that high demand likely means long waits to see specialists in many areas of the country.

Pediatricians will always ask younger kids questions to see how they’re doing, and for older kids, they’ll do a depression screen. And if you want your pediatrician to pay particular attention to your kid’s mental health, you can always get in touch beforehand.

“I can’t tell you how many times I get back-channeled by parents,” Dr. Ullom says. “A lot of times the parents are sort of aware that they’re not doing well, and they’re coming to me to kind of flesh it out, talk with them, and come up with some strategies.”

Consider how kids at different ages might be feeling.

It might seem counterintuitive, but teenagers could actually be having a harder time with the pandemic than younger kids. Dr. Ullom says that’s because they’re “at a really important developmental milestone in their life where they’re supposed to be reaching out beyond their families, identifying their friend groups, and spending more time with others.” Instead, they’ve been cut off from their peers and many social situations, instead spending their time with the family they’d normally be developing an identity outside of.

Younger kids who aren’t in this stage of life don’t have these problems yet, which means they could avoid some of the problems faced by their older peers.

But ultimately, Dr. Ullom is optimistic that all young people under the age of 25 have the ability to endure the pandemic experience. That’s because their brains are marked by neuroplasticity, essentially the ability to adapt to a new situation even after a traumatic experience. She’s betting that neuroplasticity will allow them to emerge from the experience of the pandemic stronger than they otherwise would have been.

“I’m not saying that people should experience trauma in order to grow,” she says, “but I think it does give them an opportunity to look at things differently and to explore how they respond to stressful situations.”

Be mindful of difficulties returning to “normal.”

If your kid is a profound introvert who loves online learning, then they might struggle returning to the social situations inherent to in-person schooling. But it’s not just those with obvious reasons to love remote schooling who could find reentry tough.

“When they went back to school in person, I had so many kids who had vomiting and nausea in the morning before going to school because they were anxious,” Dr. Ullom says. The lesson is that just because transitioning into life during a pandemic was tough doesn’t mean that transitioning back to something more like normal will be smooth sailing.

It’s also not as if the scary strangeness is completely over. Schools are still enforcing mask mandates, many extracurriculars remain on hiatus, and COVID-19 is still getting people sick.  As eager as we all are to put COVID in the rearview mirror, it’s still omnipresent in kids’ lives.

Get your kids vaccinated.

Along with the protection from the virus that vaccines offer, getting the shot can allow kids to return to activities and places that now require proof of vaccination. More importantly, it can help kids feel empowered after what feels like an eternity of feeling helpless. And not just because they’re worried about getting sick themselves.

“I think the biggest concern for most of the kids is not so much about their own health, but they’re always worried about bringing it back to their family,” Dr. Ullom says.

For more expert medical information, visit stanfordchildrenshealth.org.